Why no child should learn to read music


I know, right, what a ridiculous statement. I’m sure your blood was boiling when you clicked on the link. How dare I suggest that NO child should be taught to read music! But, actually, is that any more ludicrous than the statement that EVERY child should be taught to read music?

Those of you who keep an eye on these things will be aware that over the last few years there has been a drive towards a more ‘academic’ vision of music education. In the 2013 Ofsted Report ‘What Hubs must do,’ statements were made about practical music making not being linked enough to theoretical musical understanding. In the 2014 new National Curriculum, staff notation reading was made a compulsory element at KS2 rather than one of a range of music notation options as was the case in the previous iteration. And, if anecdotal evidence is to be believed, the review of the GCSE system included exam boards being asked by senior DfE officials if composition could be assessed by writing out music under silent exam conditions. Most recently we have newspaper reports suggesting that it is the Minister of State for School Standards’ wish that every child learns to read music.

Alongside this trend towards ‘academic rigour’ moves a slow but insidious creeping towards the classicalisation of music education. Make no mistake. The reason that senior figures in education, and in music, believe that it is vital for every child to learn to read music, is because they believe – consciously or not – that Classical music is BETTER than all other forms of music.

I have written about this before. Classical music is not BETTER than other forms of music. No form of music is BETTER than another. They’re just different. Music cannot be separated from the culture that incubated it. Saying Classical music is BETTER than Gospel music is saying that music invented by white western (usually) men is better than the music invented by black people, and therefore that white culture is BETTER than black culture.

Now before your blood pressure begins to rise again let me elaborate. It is fine if YOU as an individual PREFER Classical music over all other forms of music. That is not a problem. In fact it’s the entire POINT of music, which exists to inspire and enrich its audiences. It is also fine if you as an individual DISLIKE Gospel music – this does not mean that you are racist. What is not fine is using our education system to devalue the music of other cultures. Insisting that all children learn to read music, which is only a requirement for success in the western classical tradition, is to tell them that the music of other cultures, which may rely on aural learning, improvisation, or other innate musical skills is inferior.

Perhaps you think that this is too great a leap? But then let us consider the fact that the last big new music initiative that the government backed was the creation of Classical 100, the classical music listening resource for primary schools. This, by the way is a brilliant resource, which many schools are finding extremely useful. I have no issue with the resource on its own, but why hasn’t the government been seeking out people to create a similar resource for pop music, or jazz, or any of the many ‘world musics?’ After all, ‘the music of different traditions’ is in the national curriculum. It’s because they think classical is BETTER. Now consider the money given to In Harmony and the Music & Dance Scheme, which are by and large designed to use classical music (and art forms) to improve the lives of the disadvantaged. Why? Because ‘high art’ is BETTER than ‘low art.’

The classical model is so ingrained in our education system that even when we attempt to include other genres they end up being ‘classicalised.’ For example, Rap artists traditionally learn in an informal context, through self-driven study and practice, through listening and emulating, through performing. We know that most kids love to rap, but instead of respecting that musical culture, we ‘classicalise’ it by offering rap peripatetic lessons in schools. Or, we learn ‘African drumming’ – which is not even a thing, in the same way that ‘Africa’ is not a country – by copying down rhythms and playing them on unauthentic instruments in a classroom context. We have even classicalised western popular music, it just happened so long ago that we’ve nearly forgotten that most guitarists and drummers used to be self-taught – and it’s now those self-taught musicians who have suddenly become teachers of an art form that never used to be ‘taught’ in the first place.

I am not saying that reading music is a bad thing. I am not saying that classical music is a bad thing. I am not even saying that culturally insensitive approaches to other musical genres are wholly bad – at least they are placing the music of other cultures into our children’s consciousness. But when we state that ‘every child should learn to read music’ we should be aware of the – often unconscious – cultural prejudice that sits behind that claim. Yes, being able to read music is useful for those children interested in pursuing music in the western classical tradition, but then learning Mandarin is also useful for children who may eventually want to go on to live in China. I haven’t heard anyone at policy-making level insist that all children should learn Mandarin at school.

Children already have to learn and regurgitate so many random facts that our system demands of them, why add learning to read music into the mix when they may have no interest in it and it may never prove useful? No one is going to get turned down for a job in Tech because they can’t write out a D major scale, or turned away from a career in finance because they can’t sight-sing to Grade 5 standard. It is perfectly possible to function as an excellent musician in most traditions – if indeed that is ever your goal – without being able to read music, and it is incredibly easy to function as a useful member of society without a shred of theoretical musical knowledge.

Shouldn’t we be focused on giving our children the tools to make meaningful musical choices of their own? If they want to learn the cello and play in an orchestra, GREAT, crack-on with the music reading. But if they want to explore the music of other traditions, they will need aural skills, improvisational skills, performing skills, and exposure to the music of other traditions in the first place. Yes, the national curriculum (as it currently stands, pre the introduction of the ‘model curriculum’) covers these aspects alongside music reading, but the proclamations that are reiterated in public time and time again centre around music reading, and the appreciation of classical music, giving the message to teachers, parents and pupils that notation and classical are the most important things. It’s time we stopped with the musical colonialism and embraced the whole of music in all its splendour.

Dr Elizabeth Stafford

January 2019

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